Muslims in Kidlit Friday: Lailah’s Lunchbox by Reem Faruqi

I’m getting this post in just before Friday turns to Saturday. I hope to be more intentional with my posting in February as I fall into a routine with other things in my life.

Have you guessed why I chose Fridays for these posts? In Islam, Friday is significant. It’s the day of prayer, when services are held at the mosque. In Arabic most days of the week have ordinal names, i.e. “first day, second day,” but Friday, “yawm al-jum’ah,” is related to a verb for meeting or gathering. Weekends in predominantly Muslim countries are either Thursday/Friday or Friday/Saturday.

This week’s featured book is a Ramadan-related picture book. Ramadan, a month of fasting to mark the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad, follows the lunar calendar. This year it will start in late May and end in late June. The emotional takeaway from “Lailah’s lunchbox” is relevant any time of year.

Lailah's Lunchbox: A Ramadan StoryLailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story by Reem Faruqi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: Now that she is ten, Lailah is delighted that she can fast during the month of Ramadan like her family and her friends in Abu Dhabi, but finding a way to explain to her teacher and classmates in Atlanta is a challenge until she gets some good advice from the librarian, Mrs. Scrabble.

My thoughts: A culturally specific and thematically universal story about feeling strange in a new place and learning to share who you are. Lailah is excited to fast for Ramadan for the first time but nervous about explaining it to her non-Muslim teacher and classmates. All of her interactions are positive, so the conflict is an internal one. Reem Faruqi so effectively captures Lailah’s feelings and thoughts that I when I went to re-read it I realized I had mis-remembered it as being written in first person.
This simple and relatable story can serve as a “me too” story for Muslim children or an introduction to Ramadan for others.

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Muslims in Kidlit Friday: “Tell me Again How a Crush Should Feel” and “It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel”

Today’s post features two novels — one YA, one middle grade. Each has an Iranian or Iranian-American main character.

My first introduction to Iranian culture and history was when I read the graphic novel Persepolis. At that time, I only knew of Iran as a harshly ruled, conservative Muslim country. In America we often hear Middle Eastern countries talked about as if their culture and governments have been static for centuries. Learning about the Islamic revolution exposed me to how dramatically a country’s politics and daily reality can change in a short time period. That’s something worth remembering in our own nation…

Anyway, on to the books!
Tell Me Again How a Crush Should FeelTell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: High-school junior Leila has made it most of the way through Armstead Academy without having a crush on anyone, which is something of a relief. Her Persian heritage already makes her different from her classmates; if word got out that she liked girls, life would be twice as hard. But when a sophisticated, beautiful new girl, Saskia, shows up, Leila starts to take risks she never thought she would, especially when it looks as if the attraction between them is mutual. Struggling to sort out her growing feelings and Saskia’s confusing signals, Leila confides in her old friend, Lisa, and grows closer to her fellow drama tech-crew members, especially Tomas, whose comments about his own sexuality are frank, funny, wise, and sometimes painful. Gradually, Leila begins to see that almost all her classmates are more complicated than they first appear to be, and many are keeping fascinating secrets of their own.

My thoughts: Good teen novels, such as this one, are like candy. Sweet and not too complicated, so you just want to keep eating/reading. Leila’s voice is funny and real. Although this is a coming out story, I like that it starts with her already knowing she’s gay and seeming pretty comfortable with it — at least for herself. Sharing that part of her identity with private school friends and Persian family is another thing. At the same time, Leila is figuring out other parts of who she is, like what her interests are and how she can measure up to her premed sister in the eyes of her father.
Enmeshed with Leila’s coming out and coming of age narrative are the swirling drama of crushes, dating and friendship that all teens experience, and there are interesting twists in how those storylines develop. Granted, I saw the twists coming, but that they surprised Leila was believable. Some of the characters are a bit stereotyped (e.g. the vegan stage crew feminists), but part of that is tied into assumptions Leila makes about her classmates. Everyone in this story has more going on than meets than eye.
In sum: a fun YA read with a distinctive voice.
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Introducing Muslims in Kidlit Friday

Charminar

Charminar mosque and monument in Hyderabad, India. 2010

For those of us who value diversity and social justice, the past year was tough, and the rhetoric of our incoming U.S. president alarming. After the heartache of the election came the question: what do we do? From looking at history, I believe that political change comes from groups of coming together to build power that can’t be ignored. I’m not just talking about showing up at mass mobilizations. Those are one tactic. What I’m referring to  is community organizing, which takes collective strategizing and sustained commitment. That’s the kind of work it will take to prevent the creation of a Muslim registry, for instance.

But what about interpersonal and social progress? What’s often referred to as changing hearts and minds? That’s where cultural work plays a role. How much of impact, for example, have gay characters in shows like “Will & Grace” and “Glee” had on the acceptance of LGBT peers among younger generations? As so many have written in regard to the We Need Diverse Books movement, seeing all kinds of people represented in books and other media decreases isolation and increases empathy.

Over the past few years, I have shined a spotlight on children’s books with diverse characters and also books that highlight struggles for social justice (though the former is easier to find than the latter). In 2017, I am going to be more intentional about this. Specifically, every Friday I will be writing a post related to Muslims in children’s literature.

Why did I choose the topic of Muslims in kidlit?

I grew up in a homogenous, white and Christian setting. I barely knew what Islam was in high school. Then came college. I learned about lots of different people and experiences, mostly unintentionally. By junior year, I found myself studying abroad in Cairo, Egypt and listening to the call to prayer five times a day. I have lived in several other predominantly Muslim countries and cities since then and been welcomed with open arms, tea and too many sweets. I would like to see my home country be equally welcoming to strangers.

Exposure normalizes differences, but I know that many non-Muslims in the U.S. haven’t had the experiences I’ve had. On top of that, books featuring Muslim characters or written by Muslim authors have been noticeably less represented in the books I’ve found in my active pursuit of diverse kidlit in recent years.

Many of these Friday posts will simply be book reviews. I hope some will be author Q&As. And some, like today, will point to other content and conversations related to Muslims in children’s literature. This is important, because I’m not an expert, and I think it’s important to listen to the voices of Muslim writers and readers.

In that spirit, I’m kicking things off by recommending that you listen to this recent episode of the “See Something Say Something” podcast. This show is about being Muslim in America. In this particular episode, the host, Ahmed Ali Akbar, chats with two children’s writers:

  1. Hena Khan, author of the picture books “It’s Ramadan, Curious George” and “Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns.”
  2. Sara Farizan, author of the queer-themed YA novels “If You Could Be Mine” and “Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel.”

In the podcast, Hena and Sara talk about what they read as kids, how they develop characters, and the responsibilities that come with depicting underrepresented groups in writing.

Listen to the podcast here: http://app.stitcher.com/splayer/f/123109/48492912

2 Picture Books about Welcoming All People (and Pets)

welcome-neighbors

Yard sign in Millersville, PA. Dec. 25, 2016

Is there room at the inn*? What about in your club? Your school? Your country?

Christmas 2016 seems like a pretty appropriate time to highlight two picture books about welcoming others. Please share your recommendations for similar titles in the comments!

Strictly No ElephantsStrictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: When the local Pet Club won’t admit a boy’s tiny pet elephant, he finds a solution—one that involves all kinds of unusual animals in this sweet and adorable picture book.

Today is Pet Club day. There will be cats and dogs and fish, but strictly no elephants are allowed. The Pet Club doesn’t understand that pets come in all shapes and sizes, just like friends. Now it is time for a boy and his tiny pet elephant to show them what it means to be a true friend.

Imaginative and lyrical, this sweet story captures the magic of friendship and the joy of having a pet.

My review: A picture book about a boy and his tiny pet elephant? I’m already sold, but what makes “Strictly No Elephants” worth telling everyone about is the timeless story about being excluded for being different and then finding the people (and pets) who will like and embrace you for who you are.
Published in 2015, the final message that “All are Welcome” feels particularly poignant and relevant in late 2016. Many adults could benefit from reading this as much as children will. It would be an especially great addition to classroom libraries in schools that have historically been homogeneous but are become more diverse.

My Two BlanketsMy Two Blankets by Irena Kobald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: Cartwheel has moved to a place that is so strange to her, she no longer feels like herself. This is a story about new ways of speaking, new ways of living, new ways of being.

My review: Told through the eyes of a Sudanese refugee, this is a universal story of loneliness transformed by a simple gesture of friendship. Anyone who’s ever felt like a stranger in a strange land will identify with the main character through her simple but evocative descriptions of her feelings. For example:
“Nobody spoke like I did.
When I went out, it was like standing under a waterfall of strange sounds.
The waterfall was cold.
It made me feel alone.
I felt like I wasn’t me anymore.”

The soft oil and water color illustrations subtly reinforce such passages by showing the main character dressed in orange amid scenes of blues, browns and grays. In the final scene at a park, other characters and features have taken on orange accents, just as the main character has become more comfortable under her blue “blanket” while still wearing her orange outfit. The author uses blankets as a symbol for the main character’s native language and her comfort with it, as well as for the process of learning a new language — woven together word by word, with the aid of a new friend.

 

*Did you know that the phrase “no room at the inn” in the story of Christ’s birth may be better translated as “no room in the guest room,” suggesting Mary and Joseph may actually have been staying with family? Shows the power of one little word to shape a story, right??

Mike Curato on “Unwelcomed Love”

Mike Curato, author/illustrator of the adorably charming “Little Elliott” picture books, has a disheartening story on his blog today about a school visit in which a principal discouraged him from discussing one of his other popular books: “Worm Loves Worm,” written by J.J. Austrian. “Worm Loves Worm” is an invertebrate allegory to gay marriage, so you can guess the gist of the principal’s sentiments. Go read the full story from Mike.

(Don’t worry, it’s not entirely a bummer. There’s some poetic justice at the end. But even if there weren’t, it’s important to be aware that people from all kinds of marginalized groups are having these experiences daily.)

And check out “Worm Loves Worm” next time you’re at the library or bookstore!

worm-loves-worm

5 must-read children’s books about the Women’s Suffrage Movement

You know that phrase “I can’t even” that’s been floating around the past few years?

That’s how I feel about discussing this year’s election.

But when it comes to voting, I can.

And I will.

In the meantime, I’ll be distracting myself with these wonderful picture books about the women who made my vote possible. Let me know in the comments if you have favorites not listed here. In particular, I’d like to find a strong contemporary picture book about Sojourner Truth.

Around America to Win the Vote: Two Suffragists, a Kitten, and 10,000 Miles1. Around America to Win the Vote: Two Suffragists, a Kitten, and 10,000 Miles by Mara Rockliff

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book has it all! A cross-country road trip, activism for women’s suffrage, great female friendship, and a kitten.
By introducing readers to Nell Richardson and Alice Burke’s 1916 adventure, Mara Rockliff and Hadley Hooper show children that many people were part of a long journey to getting women the vote.
The text and illustrations work together to capture Alice and Nell’s verve and zeal. You’ll have the refrain “Votes for women!” running through your head well after setting the book down.

I Could Do That!: Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote2. I Could Do That!: Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote by Linda Arms White

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well before women won the vote across the U.S., women in Wyoming had a say in their state government. This story shows how Esther Morris helped make that happen with a can-do spirit and a bit of tea time cleverness.

This biography covers the span of Morris’s compelling life. I’d love to see a picture book that focuses in more on how women in Wyoming got the vote and who else was involved. Continue reading

The importance of spotlighting #ownvoices titles

I’ve written a bunch here about the #weneeddiversebooks conversation and organization since it emerged in 2014. Last year, a related conversation around the authorship of diverse stories was spurred by a suggestion from YA writer Corinne Duvyis. Since then, people have been using the hashtag #ownvoices to  share book recommendations that are written by people from the same diverse group/s as the characters.

Highlighting such titles doesn’t mean that people can’t write outside their own experiences and groups, but it does recognize the importance — for both dominant and minority group audiences — of hearing from marginalized voices themselves. It also acknowledges the institutional barriers that diverse authors face in getting published and publicized in the first place.

You can find tons of great reading suggestions by searching #ownvoices on Twitter. Also, for the month of September the Reading While White blog is featuring a daily review of an #ownvoices book. That’s given me some exciting titles for my to-read list, such as “Little White Duck,” a graphic memoir by Na Liu about  growing up in China in the 1970s.

And if you’re still wondering about the issue of writing outside your own experience, I love YA author Lamar Giles’ response to that in this post on BookRiot.

2 Picture Books about … family and migration

Within the first few pages of reading “The Keeping Quilt” this morning I was thinking about “This is the Rope.” It’s impossible not to make the comparison.

Both books tells stories of family and love by following an object that is passed down over generations. And both hint at larger histories of human migration.

First published in 1988, Patricia Polacco’s “The Keeping Quilt” is at this point a classic among picture books and comes from the real quilt and story of Polacco’s family. Jacqueline Woodson’s “This is the Rope,” is a more recent fictional work that I believe will one day be a classic.

The Keeping QuiltThe Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A sweet (and true) story about the transformation of a young immigrant’s babushka into a quilt that is used at meals, weddings, births and more. The book spans several generations of a Russian Jewish family in America. Though the theme is continuity and connection, the small changes that happen to traditions over time and with human migration form a backdrop to the text and illustrations. The charcoal drawings, in which only the quilt gets a pop of color, are as timeless as Polacco’s quilt itself.

This Is the Rope: A Story From the Great MigrationThis Is the Rope: A Story From the Great Migration by Jacqueline Woodson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An intergenerational story of a family’s move from South Carolina to New York City. The narrative centers on a rope that is first used for skipping under a sweet-smelling pine in South Carolina, then for tying suitcases to the car, later for hanging laundry on a city block, and so on.
Jacqueline Woodson makes the historical context of the book clear in an author’s note describing the Great Migration:

From the early 1900s until the mid 1970s, more than 6 million African Americans moved from the rural South to northern cities. … We came for better jobs, better treatment, better education and better lives. … The rope we brought to this ‘new country’ was Hope.

The warm colors and soft focus of James Ransome’s oil illustrations evoke the familiarity of home, even as the characters move across states and neighborhoods.

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Two picture books about Irena Sendler | #IMAWYR 6/5/16

IMWAYR-2015-logo

“It’s Monday! What are you Reading?” is a meme hosted by Kathryn at The Book Date. as a way for bloggers to swap reading lists. Kellee and Jen, of Teach Mentor Texts, gave it a kidlit focus. Check out the links on their page to see what others are reading this week.

In recent weeks I’ve read two biographies of WWII hero Irena Sendler.

Jars of HopeJars of Hope by Jennifer Roy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Simultaneously chilling and powerful story of one woman’s bravery in saving children during the Holocaust. It shows two opposite extremes of human capabilities.
I appreciate that although the book focuses on Irena Sendler, it also shows and names some of the others who also risked their lives in Zegota, an underground group of Polish men and women who rescued Jews from the Nazis. I also appreciate that it shows multiple families and scenarios in which Irena worked to rescue children. As opposed to other excellent books that focus on one individual or family’s experience, that choice points to the magnitude of the atrocities, as well as underscoring Irena’s courage.
There is something a little strange about the book’s layout, though — particularly the text placement and end pages — that makes it feel a bit like a print-on-demand text.
This is definitely worth reading if you don’t know anything about Irena Sendler, as I didn’t.
Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw GhettoIrena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto by Susan Goldman Rubin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An illustrated biography of a Polish social worker who risked her life over and over to save Jewish children during the Holocaust. Illustrations done in oil paints bring the historical figure to life. The story is best suited for older children with some background knowledge about WWII. It is text-heavy, so it’s not ideal for a read-aloud, but it provides more details about Irena Sendler’s work than a similar book, “Jars of Hope.” Good for an elementary classroom research project.

Interview with “Fearless Flyer” author Heather Lang

Heather LangLast week I wrote about my happy discovery of nonfiction kids’ books by Heather Lang. Her most recent title is “Fearless Flyer,” about early aviatrix Ruth Law. This week Heather answered some questions from me about the picture book biography. Enjoy!

Do you enjoy flying?
I’m what you would call a fearFUL flyer. I always do experiential research for every book, which I knew might be a little scary for this one! I wanted to do something that would help me understand what it was like to fly in an open cockpit. Since I couldn’t find an early biplane, I decided paragliding was the next best thing. Once I let go of the initial panic and terror, it was a wonderful experience—soaring up and down like a bird. It inspired me to weave the theme of liberty into the story—both the freedom she felt and sought as a pilot and as a woman. I’m not saying I want to become a regular, but I’m not as afraid of flying anymore!

How did you first learn about Ruth Law?
Since I’m a nervous flyer, those early aviators who risked their lives going up in their flimsy flying machines have always intrigued me. I read a lot of books about flying and early aviation and was especially fascinated by the women who came before Amelia Earhart. They are virtually unknown. Ruth’s spunky personality drew me in right away, and I loved how she became a mechanic, learning every nut and bolt on her machine. Continue reading